Ways of Seeing: Holding a piece of history is a thrill
One of Middlebury College’s best-kept secrets is its fabulous archive in the Special Collections rooms of the library. And one of the best-kept secrets in Special Collections is a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that Thoreau himself owned and used. Although his emendations are relatively few, they show us the Writer in Action, combing through his own work with care. Depending on what you count, there are about 18 adjustments that Thoreau makes to this edition, all of which appear in the multiple later editions of Walden that grace my bookshelves.
But without having seen these changes — most likely made with the very “new-fashioned” pencil that he helped design for the family business — I would have never known the nature of Thoreau’s precision in editing. Sometimes Thoreau is simply correcting a matter of punctuation, or a printer’s error. The most interesting marginal comments, however, have to do with Thoreau’s scientific scrupulousness. In the “Sounds” chapter, for instance, Thoreau crosses out “single spruce” and changes it to “double spruce.” And in “Baker Farm” where he writes of the usnea lichen “that hangs in festoons from the white-spruce tree,” Thoreau has crossed out “white” and penciled in “black” (thus sprucing up his text in more than one way!).
In addition to being precise about trees, Thoreau seems fond of getting it right about mice. At one moment in the text, he points out that a mouse-neighbor of his is “a wild and native kind, not found in the village,” a careful observation in itself. But clearly Thoreau has gone off and done some research, for the note in the right-hand margin adds the Latin genus and species. Later, Thoreau changes “meadow mouse” to “deer mouse.” While I, too, am fond of mice, I can assure you that I wouldn’t – indeed, couldn’t ? have spotted this difference. I wonder, would it matter to a reader (who wasn’t present at the time) whether Thoreau had got it right about the mouse? But that isn’t the issue. It mattered to Thoreau.
What is unexpectedly fascinating, however, is the extent to which Thoreau’s careful accounting of the flora and fauna of the Concord woodlands is pragmatically useful today. Dr. Richard Primack and his colleague Dr. Abraham Miller-Rushing have used Thoreau’s records to map changes in Concord’s plant species since the mid-19th century. What Primack and Miller-Rushing have been able to do with Thoreau’s records is to map the likely effects of climate change on the timing of the flowering of plants. They’ve also identified the loss of almost 30 percent of the plant species that used to flourish in Concord. In this case, Thoreau’s extensive journals (kept from 1837 to 1861) are the primary source of this historical data, but it is in Walden that we see the early emergence of the naturalist-in-training.
Who knew that we would have Thoreau to thank for contributing to contemporary scientific research? I imagine that Thoreau would be pleased, especially if these scientists did not therefore dismiss his radical spiritual exhortations, his defense of contemplative practice or his unyielding abolitionist politics. For Thoreau, every aspect of his life and work are deeply intertwined.
Which leads me back to the copy of Walden in Special Collections. Despite the new “relevance” of Thoreau’s scientific writing, that’s not what excites me the most. For me, reaching back into history has profound value for its own sake. I was nearly rhapsodic several weeks ago when in my “Nature’s Meanings” class I spoke of the thrill of holding Thoreau’s copy of Walden in my own hands.
“What a nerd!” I imagined my students thinking when they didn’t collectively burst into a chorus of “Wow!” But a few days later I bumped into a student who was barreling out of the library with a huge grin on his face. “I just looked at that copy of Walden,” he exclaimed, “Wow!” Later, when I asked him to elaborate, Noah sent me an e-mail: “[It] was an extremely powerful experience. … Thoreau seemed so much more of a person when I envisioned him holding the very book that was in my hands. Experiencing this vicarious sensation added a whole new level of depth and importance to book that was already special to me.”
Thoreau would be happy to hear that, I think. I certainly was.
Rebecca Kneale Gould is Associate Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a “boutique shepherd” in Monkton.
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